For us, like many, keeping bees and keeping gardens go hand in hand. It is magical watching a veggie patch grow with the hum of worker bees foraging across the vegetable flowers, understated and practical in their floral beauty. Over the past year, Jen has completely changed our approach to gardening, moving away from a conventional soil based system to a soil-less system known as Hügelkultur. In doing so, not only have we become able to grow veggies using only the compost generated on our farm, we have also significantly increased our growing space by gardening vertically, and cut down on our summer waterings by nearly 100%.
The season to build a Hügelkultur is now! Keep reading to learn more about these amazing gardens.
Hügelkultur is an ancient style of gardening that has recently been regaining popularity after falling out of collective memory for many decades. It is a grass roots system that reminds us that all of the chemical elements so carefully distilled and rationed out in factories to be sold as fertilizer blends are freely available in wonderfully natural proportions from the organic mass in our own backyards. Curiously, as a society we have come to believe that the organic mass that our gardens generate must be toted away to city Greens and that our gardens in turn need to be fertilized by chemicals that we purchase at the Garden Centre.
Hügelkultur allows the organic detritus produced by gardens, to grow gardens. It is essentially composting in situ. It is wonderfully organic, sustainable, and fun!
A Hügelkultur (German, for Hill Garden) is a soil free, water sparing, tilling free, chemical free gardening system. It is a mound composed of a densely piled stack of wood (logs, branches, twigs), successively layered in various organic detritus such as grass clippings, yard trimmings, kitchen scraps, fallen leaves, wood ash, manure, and mulch.
The end result is a densely packed compost pile perfect for nurturing veggies, berries, or any other edible or non edible plant imaginable. Further, because it is a mound (ours are up to 4’6″ tall), growing space is greatly increased and gardening does not require the stooped over posture characteristic of flat beds.
The magic of Hügelkultur is wonderfully simple.
The Densely Packed Wood Core:
1. can absorb, retain, and slowly release phenomenal amounts of water allowing these gardens to stay mysteriously moist without watering, even in extended drought.
2. creates air spaces full of warm moist air preventing roots from ever becoming water logged, dessicated, or suffocated.
3. donates carbon, the secret of all life, in a wonderfully slow and rationed way.
4. gradually breaks down and shifts creating ever changing air spaces and nutrient delivery, completely eliminating any need to till.
1. is an essential component of the Hügelkultur. Any herbivore manure can be used (horse, cattle, sheep, chicken….)
2. donates immense amounts of nitrogen, essential to vigorous plant growth.
3. generates spectacular amounts of heat which extends the growing season in both directions by as much as 6 weeks.
4. absorbs, retains, and slowly releases water, again allowing these gardens to be nearly watering free.
We have completed one full year of Hügelkultur gardening and are fully converted. We built our Hügels in December/January which allowed them to absorb plenty of rain water which they stored and released over the summer. Fall and winter are the best times to build Hügels.
The beds were warm enough to plant our tomatoes in mid March (we typically didn’t plant until May when using soil based beds!). It was remarkable how quickly the intact organic matter that we threw on the Hügels got composted down in to rich black earth. The gardens required almost no weeding on account of the mulch. The veggies grew vigorously (we had no idea that tomatoes could grow to such ridiculous height!) and produced immense yields that required us to quickly learn chutney and preserve recipes as there was far too much to consume in real time. We attribute the plant growth and health to the Hügels, but the magnificent veggie yields were thanks, we believe, to our bees. We only needed to water our beds three times over the entire summer, for less than 30 minutes each time. This is in contrast to the often twice daily hour long waterings that our soil gardens needed in the heat of summer.
Throughout the summer, the gardens absorbed the lawn trimmings (we just threw them directly from the field on to the beds) and in the fall we scrounged up every last fallen leaf and threw those on the beds too (we even helped ourselves to some of the city street leaf piles!). Once the veggie season ended we mulched down the fading veggie plants back on to the mounds and gave each Hügel a generous layer of horse manure and topping of straw bedding mulch.
We started our Hügelkultur trial with a single mound in January 2014 and have since expanded to include 4 more with plans for at least another 2. We can not ever imagine reverting back to a soil based system. We encourage anyone and everyone with an interest in gardening to consider adopting a Hügelkultur system. For us it has been life changing.
To learn more about our Hügelkulturs including how they were built, please visit Jen’s website.
If you are interested in starting this style of garden but wonder where to find manure, you need look no further. At EquiFlora we have plenty of horse manure, and grass clippings to share. Contact us to learn how to get some for yourself completely free of charge.